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What Is Water Footprint, And What to Do with It?

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By Chamber Press Office, 13 April 2023

Water pollution, water scarcity, and the depletion of freshwater resources are all crucial environmental challenges of our time. Apart from trying to reduce your own or your business's water consumption, there are some surprising ways to play your part in saving this precious resource. 

According to the Carbon Disclosure Project (CDP), two-thirds of the world’s largest companies report exposure to water-related business risks that could substantially change their business, operations, or revenue.

 

What is water footprint all about?

Water use is similar to the whole carbon emission problem, as we tend to exceed the limit that would support a balanced ecosystem.

In almost every product and service, you can measure water use or, in other words, the water footprint. For instance, the United Nations Organisation for Food and Agriculture (FAO) has stated that it takes about 1,000 litres of water to produce one litre of milk, considering the whole production chain from start to finish. 

All the clothes we wear, the food we eat, and the products we manufacture demand significant water. This is why the water footprint concept has come into being so we can be aware and conserve as much water as possible, especially in the face of the climate crisis.

The water footprint is essentially an environmental indicator which measures the amount of freshwater used during the entire production process of a service or product. 

For example, a fashion company could use it to measure how much water went into creating a pair of jeans, or individuals can track their own consumption through all activities. 

The concept was first conceived by Arjen Hoekstra in 2002. Due to its popularity, Hoekstra founded the Water Footprint Network in 2008 with leading figures from business, academia, and the public. The non-profit platform bridges collaboration among organisations, companies, and individuals who wish to solve the world’s water crises through smart and fair water use. 

 

How to calculate water footprint?

The calculation of water footprint is made up of three components - depending on where the water has come from:

  • Blue water footprint:

Water derived from groundwater or surface resources is incorporated into a product, evaporated, or tipped into the sea. Industry and domestic water would both have a blue water footprint. 

  • Grey water footprint:

Refers to the volume of freshwater needed to remove pollutants during production to adhere to water quality standards.

  • Green water footprint: 

Water from rain or snow (precipitation) has been stored in the root zone of soil and transpired, incorporated, or evaporated by plants. Those producing forestry, horticultural, and agricultural products would have a green water footprint. 

(According to the Water Footprint Network)

What is the relevance of water footprint for businesses?

Businesses’ water footprint includes all the water they use directly and through their supply chain to create products and services. However, there is also the aspect of water usage when using or even discarding products. As a company, understanding your water footprint could provide opportunities to cut expenses and look for ways to innovate. 

Measuring this factor will also give your business another perspective in developing a well-informed corporate water strategy. In terms of how companies can adopt this approach, tools such as the Water Footprint Assessment Tool can help.

You can take many actions to lower your company’s water footprint. Firstly, reviewing the entire supply chain process to see where cuts can be made following an assessment. 

For example, if you produce clothing, you must explore your materials and how water-intensive they are. Making one cotton t-shirt, for instance, requires three thousand litres of water, equivalent to the amount one person would drink in four years. 

 

The sectors with the most extensive water footprints are:

  • apparel and textile manufacturing,
  • livestock farming, 
  • oil and gas extraction
  • and mining.

However, there are alternative ways to still make and produce products without using heavy quantities of water. In the case of cotton, the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) has estimated that around 73 per cent of the worldwide cotton crop is grown on irrigated land. 

For this reason, organisations such as the Better Cotton Initiative, C&A Foundation, and Cotton Inc. have collaborated with farmers to ensure it is used efficiently and effectively. Also, there is plenty of room for innovation to find less water-thirsty resources and materials that can be used in this industry. 

In terms of what you can do as a business, considering recycled water for making your products could be a significant step forward. The automotive giant General Motors recently saved $2 million by using stormwater in its manufacturing processes. 

Educating your team on the importance of looking at water usage differently and going beyond automated taps in the restrooms is also a good idea. 

Naturally, every business is different, though having a water strategy could benefit your business in multiple ways. For instance, you can reduce costs, develop resilience to water scarcity, and reduce carbon emissions. Moreover, it gives you a competitive advantage, and you can meet consumer expectations for environmental friendliness and ethical consumption. 

 

Which products are the most water-thirsty?

Another everyday product that requires a lot of water to create is a cup of coffee. That’s right; a must-have for a busy day of work, but it takes roughly 37 gallons of water to grow and produce one cup of coffee. 

Additionally, electronic devices we use every day can have a significant water footprint. It takes 400 gallons of water to make one computer. One reason for this is that each chip inside your device must be rinsed more than 30 times. Therefore, selecting smaller electronic devices or using a tablet might be a better option. 

Bread is also incredibly water-intensive requiring 172 gallons per loaf. This means each slice has around 11 gallons. 

Choosing a diet that will not cost the planet is one of the most effective ways to reduce your environmental footprint, including carbon and water.

Many foods we take for granted are made with much more water than you might imagine. Eating less meat or going vegetarian is an impactful decision. 

These choices probably look like restrictions, but they would add to a healthier, balanced diet that helps address environmental challenges. 

 

Trailblazer companies in saving water

There are already some great examples of water-conscious companies leading the way in water conservation. 

Levi Strauss & Co. are committed to fresh water and adopted numerous water-related initiatives. According to the UN, one pair of jeans takes 7,500 litres of water to make, considering all stages of production.

Their Water Less campaign has already achieved a lot and provided many innovations they made available as open-source knowledge to help others follow in their footsteps. Building on this long-term strategic vision, they recently launched the 2025 Water Action Strategy with the aim to ultimately use only as much water as replenishes naturally wherever they operate. Their goal is to reduce water use in manufacturing by 50 per cent in areas of high water stress against their 2018 baseline.

United By Blue, sustainable apparel and accessories enterprise, is already certified carbon neutral and B Corp and has promised to remove one pound of rubbish from our waterways for every product sold. So far, they have collected 1,035,605 pounds to protect our oceans, bays, and rivers. 

Thule, a global brand for outdoor equipment, has partnered with Bluesign, which provides services and certifications to sustainable textile solutions, to hone in on opportunities to reduce water pollution and waste in their supply chain. Their environmental impact report from 2014 shared that they had already reduced their water use by 51.8 per cent in two years. This decrease resulted from small-scale and large-scale conservation projects, such as focusing on their building’s landscape irrigating and offering employee education opportunities for water conservation. 

 

Becoming more sustainable by conserving water

Businesses looking to become more sustainable should not solely look at their carbon footprint but weigh their water footprint just as seriously. 

We are facing many water challenges due to climate change. Businesses can be used as a force for good to prevent avoidable crises that will ultimately harm their chances of succeeding in business. 

Conserving water, just as managing other environmental factors, starts with awareness and measurements that would allow proper integration into strategy and action plans. Resources provided by acknowledged NGOs like the Water Footprint Network are already available and easy to access to leaders willing to listen and act. 

You can calculate your own water footprint here and check the water footprint of products with the interactive visual tool hosted by the Water Footprint Network.

 

This article was produced by Business Spirit News and published by Profit with Purpose Magazine

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